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American Routes Shortcuts: Jon Cleary

Jon Cleary
Jon Cleary

Jon Cleary may have been born in Kent, England but his musical upbringing was all New Orleans. He came to the city after college in 1980 and began his real education in the clubs, where he put in time as a sideman with heroes like Ernie K-Doe, Walter “Wolfman” Washington, and Snooks Eaglin. Cleary became a world-renowned hired gun, playing with Eric Clapton, BB King, Dr. John and Bonnie Raitt. On the home scene, Jon takes center stage playing solo shows as well as fronting his own band, the Absolute Monster Gentlemen. A while back, I sat down with Jon Cleary at the piano in his 9th Ward home, an old hardware store, and asked him how an English kid in the 1970s was introduced to the music of the Crescent City.

Jon Cleary: My uncle lived in New Orleans when I was a kid, and he used to send me letters and some posters. When he came back from New Orleans he had two suitcases full of 45s, and I’d go out and stay with him, and he’d play me Jivin’ Gene & the Jokers and Professor Longhair. These are records you couldn’t get outside of New Orleans or outside of Louisiana probably at that time, let alone in England. He knew them inside out; he’d say, “Listen to the tenor solo on this. Listen to the way the guy is playing the piano or the way he phrases this one little line.” Clifton Chenier, Snooks Eaglin, Fats Domino, Clarence Henry, all this great stuff.


Nick Spitzer: What do you think sets the New Orleans piano music apart? I mean obviously there are different people with different styles, but what is it that makes the piano sound of the city different than other places that maybe are known for rhythm and blues?

JC: Well there are several aspects. The thing that caught me first was just that one lick, you know [plays piano], I loved that. I thought if I could actually just learn to play that, and I could get that right then I wouldn’t need to–

NS: Is there a verbal name for that lick?

JC: I don’t think there is but there should be. I mean it features in other styles of music too, but it’s a real essential word in the New Orleans musical vocabulary. But that idea of playing [plays piano], that style of funk always pressed all my buttons. I don’t know quite what it is about that but I love it.


NS: You were so drawn to funk, what do you mean when you say “funk”?

JC: It means something different down here I think. There are several elements that are important in New Orleans piano playing, and they apply elsewhere too, but basically the rhythms are sophisticated, and they’re syncopated. Funk is the way you break up four beats of a bar [plays piano], and then play offset accents and uneven beats against that, and put the emphasis on the uneven beats. That’s kind of what makes you want to dance [plays piano]. There are lots and lots of different examples. And then harmonically it’s pretty sophisticated too; whereas elsewhere you might just have three chord blues, in New Orleans you have [plays piano] interesting substitutions so harmonically it was always more sophisticated.

NS: Now you’re so able to explain these things in words and also play them. How did you find your way to being able to play like this?

JC: I listened to you know all the records when I was a kid.

NS: So that helped.

JC: Yeah I mean you listen to them over and over again, just grab whatever you can. It was very hard back then, you couldn’t just dial up Dr. John on Youtube. But Professor Longhair, I mean no one in England had ever heard of Professor Longhair, a handful of people probably. But I had access to those records. I knew [plays piano], and I could actually hear that stuff and figure it out so you just sit there and play it, put the needle on, listen to it, try it, put the needle back, just over and over again for hours and hours and hours, and then I came to New Orleans. I said, “If you’re gonna learn it, get on an airplane and come to New Orleans.”


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